The Passion of the Christ is a hard movie for me to review, much less give a proper rating to. Believe it or not, I really do want to cheer on writer/director Mel Gibson for forging ahead with such a dark, unflinching vision, but this particular vision of his is so massively flawed (albeit very well-made, with the subtitled Latin dialogue being an especially nice touch) that I just can’t. Lots of others (including Roger Ebert) do feel differently, and I don’t have a problem with that. But for me, it’s still a very flawed film.
The Passion chronicles the final 12 hours of Jesus Christ’s human life, including his arrest, whipping, crucifixion, and subsequent resurrection. In other words, no spoiler warnings necessary, for the entire story is nothing anyone familiar with religion hasn’t already heard about before. Gibson’s approach to it, however, is so unusually gruesome and detailed in its depiction of Jesus’s torture (some of which is filmed in gratuitous slow-motion) that I quite frankly don’t know how to feel about it.
On one hand, I want to praise Gibson for not turning away from the anguish Jesus suffered through in order to (as Christianity says) forgive humanity for its sins, but on the other, the film concentrates so much on that over his compassion, warmth, and unconditional love that we’re ultimately left with a frustratingly incomplete portrait of his journey.
Sure, there are a few flashbacks to his earlier life here and there (one of which is to him creating the modern table, which Mary comments on by saying “It won’t catch on”. Ha. Ha. Ha), but they’re so brief, random, and utterly inconsequential that they might as well have not even been there at all.
Certainly, those well-acquainted with Jesus’s whole story already know why his pain matters, but viewers who don’t might not learn that from this film (particularly since it literally opens with no context about him whatsoever), and will probably finish it more drained than moved. As for the infamous violent scenes, I found some of them purposeful and meaningful, and others to be—oh, let’s bite the bullet here—really, really unnecessary.
Criticize me as you will, but I just don’t see the point of including over-the-top moments like Jesus’s cross being flipped over so the ever-sneering Romans could pound more nails down it, or a crow pecking out the eyes of one of the men crucified with Jesus, or Judas (the disciple of Jesus that wound up betraying him) witnessing demonic children and a grotesque animal corpse for no apparent reason.
Since none of these things are described in Scripture, they just feel like Gibson trying to be weird and shocking just for the sake of it (especially in the bizarre appearances of a very Voldemort-esque Satan), which completely undermines the point of the bloodiness that actually does have a point behind it.
Admittedly, not all of The Passion is brutal. The first 50 minutes or so surprised me in how mild they were, but don’t really offer much more insight into Jesus other than “he gets arrested and pushed around from person to person”. These people include King Herod, who unquestionably belongs in a Monty Python skit, and Pontius Pilate, whose more cruel tendencies (including having hundreds of Jews crucified) are conveniently kept off-camera.
This portrayal of Pilate, along with that of the Jews that rally against Jesus, has lead many to denounce the film as anti-Semitic. I don’t entirely agree with these claims (after all, it’s the Romans who beat and torture him, and some Jews are shown as sympathetic of his plight), but they’re admittedly not easy to dismiss either.
Thus, I still find myself struggling a lot with this film. Some have found it very powerful, and perhaps you will too, but I just don’t see any reason to ever watch it again. Definitely not recommended if you’re searching for a lighthearted Easter flick to complement your annual egg gatherings.